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U.S. suspects Osama bin Laden

©Associated Press


KABUL, Afghanistan -- Highly coordinated and unprecedented in scale, Tuesday's attacks in the United States called to mind the man suspected of orchestrating some of the world's worst terrorist acts: Osama bin Laden, U.S. officials said.

No one has claimed responsibility for Tuesday's attacks, and the Afghan government that plays host to bin Laden rejected speculation he was involved. One expert cautioned against assuming bin Laden could pull off such a complex operation.

But Bush administration officials and other experts said the millionaire Saudi exile was their top suspect.

"This apparently was well-planned over a number of years, planned by real pros and experts," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in Washington after speaking with FBI and intelligence officials. "Their belief is, at least initially, that this looks like Osama bin Laden's signature."

One administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities had received a fax during the morning from unknown individuals representing themselves as being part of bin Laden's group.

A London-based Arab journalist said Tuesday that bin Laden's followers warned his newspaper by telephone three weeks ago of a major attack.

"They said it would be a huge and unprecedented attack but they did not specify," said Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor of the Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper.

The callers had made similar threats previously "but this time it seems his people were accurate and meant every word they said," he said in London.

But the Taliban, Afghanistan's ruling Islamic militia, said bin Laden lacks the resources for such an operation.

"We have tried our best in the past -- and we are willing in the future -- to assure the United States in any kind of way we can that Osama is not involved in these kinds of activities," Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil said in Kabul.

Anthony Cordesman, a terrorism expert from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, warned against assuming bin Laden is to blame.

"There is a level of sophistication and coordination that no counterterrorism expert had ever previously anticipated, and we don't have a group that we can immediately identify that has this kind of capability," he said.

The United States has called bin Laden the architect of some of the worst acts of terrorism against Americans: the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa and last year's bombing of the USS Cole.

The FBI has a $5 million bounty on bin Laden's head. The State Department calls him "one of the most significant sponsors of Islamic extremist activities in the world today."

Stripped of his Saudi citizenship, bin Laden has been hiding for five years in Afghanistan under Taliban protection.

He has repeatedly called on Muslims worldwide to join in a jihad, or holy war, and has declared war on the United States in religious edicts faxed to the outside world. All U.S. citizens are legitimate targets, he has said.

"I'm fighting so I can die a martyr and go to heaven to meet God. Our fight now is against the Americans," bin Laden was once quoted by Al-Quds Al-Arabi as saying.

Last spring, bin Laden instructed activists attending a Muslim convention in Afghanistan to prepare the next generation for the jihad.

"Issue a call to the young generation to get ready for the holy war and to prepare for that in Afghanistan because jihad in this time of crisis for Muslims is an obligation of all Muslims," he said in a statement read at the May gathering.

Bin Laden's group met earlier this year with the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad and the Egyptian al-Gamma al-Islamiya "to put in place a common strategy against the United States," Middle East expert Antoine Sfeir noted Tuesday, citing European intelligence sources.

But if he is involved, bin Laden and his followers probably acted alone Tuesday, Sfeir said in Paris.

"Bin Laden is the one with the financial means and the human needs and the logistic means," Sfeir said.

Bin Laden came to prominence fighting alongside the U.S.-backed Afghan mujahedeen -- holy warriors -- in their war against Soviet troops in the 1980s.

But former friends and followers say he turned against the United States during the Gulf War, and began campaigning against America from Saudi Arabia.

Disowned by his family, bin Laden -- believed to be in his 40s -- is said to have moved in early 1996 with a band of followers to Afghanistan, where is allegedly operates several training camps.

Earlier this summer, a federal jury in New York convicted four alleged bin Laden associates in connection with the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa, also a coordinated attack.

In retaliation for the bombings, President Clinton ordered missile strikes on bin Laden's suspected hide-out, and Washington and the United Nations have exerted diplomacy and sanctions to get Afghanistan to hand him over.

It refuses, saying the United States has no evidence linking bin Laden to terrorism.

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